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Episode 3 - Olduvai handaxe

Olduvai handaxe (made 1.2 - 1.4 million years ago) found in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, East Africa

What do you take with you when you travel? Most of us would embark on a long list that begins with a toothbrush and ends with excess baggage. But for most of human history, there was only one thing that you really needed in order to travel - a stone handaxe.

'They are just beautiful tools ...'

'Pretty sharp, around the edges, isn't it?'

'I think whoever made this, did it very beautifully and carefully.'

'And once they'd been invented, if you want to use that word, they just never changed the design ... and I think that is the ultimate compliment to the design of a superb tool.'

It looks pretty straightforward, but in fact a handaxe is extremely tricky to make and, for over a million years, it was literally the cutting edge of technology. It accompanied our ancestors through half of their history, and was the main reason they spread first across Africa and then across the world.

For a million years the sound of making handaxes provided the percussion of everyday life. Anyone choosing a hundred objects to tell a history of the world would have to include a handaxe. All of this week I'm looking at objects from the very earliest moments of human history. Every object I've chosen is a document of the world in which it was made, but also marks a critical stage in the process by which we became fully human. And what I think makes this stone axe so interesting is how much it tells us, not just about the hand, but about the mind that made it.

The Olduvai Gorge handaxe doesn't, of course, look anything like a modern axe - there's no handle and there's no metal blade. It's in fact a piece of grey-green volcanic rock, a very beautiful grey-green, and it's in the shape of a tear-drop, and it's a lot more versatile than a modern straight axe would be. The stone has been chipped to give you sharp edges along the long sides of the tear-drop, so to speak, and to give you a sharp point at one end. When you hold it up against a human hand, you are struck by how closely it matches the shape, although this one is unusually large and it is bigger than most human hands would be. It's also been very beautifully worked, and you can see the marks of the chipping that have shaped it.

A handaxe like this was the Swiss Army knife of the Stone Age - an essential piece of technology with multiple uses. The pointed end could of course be used as a drill, while the long blades on either side would cut trees or meat or scrape bark or skins. You can imagine using this to butcher an elephant, to cut the hide and remove the meat.

The very earliest tools, like the stone chopper we were looking at in the last programme, would strike all of us as pretty rudimentary. They look like chipped cobbles, and they were made simply by taking one large piece of stone and striking it with another, chipping off a few bits to make at least one sharp cutting edge. But this handaxe is a very different matter. This is the expert stone-knapper, Phil Harding:

'Now you can see, here I've selected a piece of flint which is relatively long and thin - not a great deal of work to thin it down.

'And what I do is, I select a hard stone hammer, in this case a quartzite pebble about the size of a cricket ball, and I elect to hit it in one place - and this is where I start to knap. Now once I've taken one flake off, what I do then is turn the flint over and I take a flake off the other side, and then I turn it back again, and pretty much, by the time I've got all the way round, you can actually see that what I've done is make a very crude form of the final implement. It is rounded and it's got flaking on both sides but, crucially, it's got a cutting edge that goes all the way round.'

Simply watching a practised knapper at work shows just how many skills the maker of our handaxe must have possessed. Handaxes are not things you knock off; they are the result of experience, of careful planning and of skill, learned and refined over a long period.

'Now, if I really wanted to refine that - and people did want to refine that, they really were creative people; they wanted to make beautiful objects, not just functional objects - what I could then do is change the hammer from a big stone hammer to a hammer that is much softer ... a piece of antler is a perfect hammer. And what we would do then, is actually thin the piece down and refine the shape, work our way round ... and in about 10 to 15 minutes, there's your handaxe.' (Phil Harding)

But as well as great manual dexterity, what's important for our story is the conceptual leap required - to be able to imagine in the rough lump of stone the shape that you want to make, in the way a sculptor today can see the statue inside the block of marble.

This particular piece of supreme hi-tech stone is between 1.2 and 1.4 million years old. Like the chopping tool we were looking at in the last programme, it was found in East Africa, at Olduvai Gorge, that great split in the savannah in Tanzania. But this comes from a higher geological layer than the chopping tool, and there's a huge leap between those earliest first stone tools and this handaxe, because I think it's in this tool that we find the real beginnings of modern humans. The person that made this is, I think, a person we would have recognised as someone like us.

All this carefully focussed and planned creativity implies an enormous advance in how our ancestors saw the world and how their brains worked. But this handaxe may contain the evidence of something even more remarkable. Does this chipped stone tool hold the secret of speech? Was it in making things like this that we learned how to talk to one another?

Recently, scientists have looked at what happens inside the brain when a stone tool is being made. They've used modern hospital scanners to see which bits of the brain are used when a knapper is working with stone - and surprisingly the areas of the modern brain activated when you're making a handaxe overlap considerably with those you use when you speak. It now seems very likely that if you can shape a stone you can shape a sentence.

Of course we've no idea what the maker of our handaxe might have said, but it seems probable that he would have had roughly the language abilities of a seven-year-old child. But whatever the level, this early speech would clearly have been the beginnings of a quite new capacity for communication - and that would have meant that people could sit down to exchange ideas, plan their work together or even just to gossip. If you can make a decent handaxe like this one, it's a good bet that you're well on the way to something we would all recognise as society.

So, 1.2 million years ago, where are we? We can make tools like our handaxe, that help us control our environment and in fact transform it - the handaxe gives us not just better food, but can also skin animals for clothing and strip branches for fire or shelter. Not only this; we can now talk to each other and we can imagine something that isn't already in front of us. What next? The handaxe is about to accompany us on a huge journey; because with all these skills, we're no longer tied to our immediate environment. If we need to - even if we just want to - we can move. Travel is possible, maybe even desirable, and we can move beyond the warm savannahs of Africa and survive, perhaps even flourish, in a colder climate. The handaxe is our passport to the rest of the world, and in the study collections of the British Museum you can find handaxes from all over Africa - Nigeria, South Africa, Libya - but also from Israel and India, Spain and Korea - even from a gravel pit near Heathrow airport.

And as they moved north, these early handaxe-makers became the first Britons. Nick Ashton has been excavating on the Norfolk coast in Happisburgh:

'In Happisburgh we have these 30-foot (or 9-metre) cliffs, which are composed of these clays and silts and sands, and these were laid down by massive glaciation around about 450,000 years ago, which even reached the outskirts of north London. But it's beneath these clays that a local who was walking his dog found a handaxe, embedded in these organic sediments. These tools - which were first being made in Africa 1.6 million years ago - arrived in southern Europe and parts of Asia just under a million years ago, and reached Britain somewhere between 600,000 and 500,000 years ago. Of course today it's a beach, but the coast all those many years ago would've been several miles further out. And if you'd walked along that ancient coastline, you would have arrived in what nowadays we call The Netherlands, in the heart of central Europe. At this time there was a major land bridge connecting Britain to mainland Europe. We don't really know why humans colonised Britain then, but perhaps it was due to the effectiveness of this new technology that we call the handaxe.'

The stone handaxe was made essentially in the same way and in the same shape for over a million years, and it must be the most successful piece of human technology in human history. But is there one last secret in the stone? Our handaxe is just a bit too large to use easily. Why would you make it like that? I showed it to an expert in ergonomic design, the inventor Sir James Dyson:

'What interests me about this is that it's not really very practical. It's double-sided, it has a sharp edge both sides, and it's symmetrical. It's almost as though it's an object of beauty rather than a practical object. So I wonder actually if it's a decorative thing, or even something like a ceremonial sword to make you look brave, powerful, and maybe to pull women.

'It doesn't look to me like a practical tool, it looks to me more like a show object, a decorative object, than a practical object, because I can only see that whatever I do with it I'm going to hurt my hand. So I think it's a beautiful object, but I don't believe it has any intent - serious intent - behind it.'

Of course it 'is' still a practical object, but I think it's nonetheless worth speculating, as Sir James Dyson does, whether our handaxe 'was' made a bit too big for easy use, in order to show that it was made for somebody important. Are we looking here at one of the oldest of all status symbols; the expression of a social pecking order? And then the handaxe is so pleasing to the eye as well as to the hand, that it's hard not to ask if it wasn't to some extent made quite intentionally to be a thing of beauty. Is this the beginning of the long story of art and, indeed, of art being pressed into the service of power? Or are we just projecting back on to these distant ancestors our own ways of thinking about beauty and status?

In the next programme we're going to be unquestionably in the realm of art - I'm going to be looking at a masterpiece of Ice Age sculpture, carved in the tusk of a mammoth.

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